Gettysburg+150: Public Diplomacy and Lincoln's Words

Sunday, November 17th 2013

For Public Diplomacy officers of a certain generation, our nation's observance of the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's address at Gettysburg will bring back some days of yesteryear.


Back when U.S. Information Service libraries and centers overseas were filled with eager students and professionals, the "Gettysburg Address Speech Contest" was an annual staple of programming in many countries.  Students entered the contest by memorizing the speech and declaiming it before a panel of judges.  There might be school, local, regional, and national competitions.  Indeed, in Bangladesh and Nigeria, when a local leader was introduced to me, I might hear something like this: "he's too modest to tell you, but he won the national Gettysburg Address speech contest in 196-.  That's how he became such a compelling orator in Parliament!"


In Taiwan in the late 1980s, where the speech contests lingered on under the auspices of The Lincoln Society, I was a judge one year.  It was fascinating to hear how different university students emphasized the different words and phrases in the Address.  It was also fascinating to see the older members of the Society in the audience.  When they were young, they had learned the Address by heart, and their lips were silently moving to the words as they heard each student.


President Jiang Zemin of China, no democrat, often surprised foreign visitors by reciting in English some of Lincoln's words.  He must have memorized the Address before 1949.  During China's republican period, it was often said that Lincoln's "of the people, by the people, for the people" paralleled Sun Yat-sen's "Three Principles of the People."  Indeed, a 1942 U.S. postage stamp celebrated the parallel.  While I was in Beijing, I had a large blowup of the stamp placed in the hallway of the Embassy's Public Affairs Section.


Public diplomacy officers all know the value of an essay or speech contest.  Giving a prize to the student with the highest grades in English at a school or university recognizes an accomplishment, for sure, but it rewards only one person, and it has no effect on others.  A speech or essay contest, on the other hand, may encourage hundreds of students to strive for the prize.  Win or lose, every contestant is improved by the effort.


I said that Gettysburg Address speech contests were a Public Diplomacy program of yesteryear.  As time went on, American Centers narrowed their audiences.  Programming shifted to focus on specific foreign policy issues.  (Why organize a speech contest for students when the time could be used for a seminar on the Uruguay Round of trade talks?)  The number of USIS officers in the field shrank decade by decade.  Gradually, fewer officers who were focused on other priorities had no time to spare for the speech contests.


I have one more memory of the Gettysburg Address to share.  While I was taking a language refresher course in Beijing, one of my tutors volunteered that, taking his lead from President Jiang, he had read Lincoln's words.  He had noticed this line:  "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."  My tutor asked me, "I understand the whole Address, except for one thing.  What did they do?"  He knew of the Address, but not the battle, and very little of the Civil War. 


It gave my Mandarin a workout, but I told of slavery (nuli zhidu), the war (nanbei zhanzheng), Seminary and Cemetery ridges (shenxueyuanling, mudiling), the high water mark (gaochaoxian), and of course "the new birth of freedom" (xinshengde ziyou). 


He was so moved that he watched the 1993 Hollywood film, Gettysburg, and he transcribed and memorized these lines spoken by Jeff Daniels (as Joshua Chamberlain):  "America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it's not the land. There's always more land. It's the idea that we all have value, you and me." 


That conversation was an example of the need for "the last three feet" in Public Diplomacy.



4 people have commented on this article so far

Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. 

Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.  Specializing in Public Diplomacy, political-military affairs, and East Asia, he attained the rank of Minister-Counselor in the career service.  He was President of the Public Diplomacy Council from 2013 to 2015 and is now a member of the Board of Directors. authors name for more info

Author: Donald M. Bishop

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

Lincoln and Gettysburg in China

Thank you for this, Don.

I know that while Chinese can be as cynical about U.S. foreign policy as anyway, they are endlessly fascinated by U.S. democracy and our incessant efforts to perfect it.

When I worked Chengdu 2007 - 2012 I met the Chengdu writer Liu Xianwen. Liu has written two books about the US.

Chengdu writer LIU Xianwen in July introduced General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (aka 乔舒亚 劳论斯 张伯伦)last summer with his book "The Young Lion of Gettysburg – the Memoirs of the Legendary American Civil War General Chamberlain" published by the Sichuan People's Publishing House. This is the second book by Liu, a long-standing scholar of American culture and history, who published "America: From Tolerance to Greatness", his meditation on American values seen through outstanding people in U.S. History as well as American movies and literature. Now Liu is working on his next book which will introduce Chinese readers to the Normandy Landings of June 1944.

Liu, who often goes by his English name Jefferson, has a deep interest in what makes Americans tick. He believes that the modernization of China must include not only economic progress but spiritual and moral progress so that the Chinese people can become more fully the masters of their own country.

I met Jefferson several years ago when I worked 2007 - 2012 as a political-economic officer at the U.S Consulate General in Chengdu, Sichuan. Jefferson's first book was impressive for his exploration of American values not only through Thomas Paine but also as refracted through cultural landmarks like Moby Dick, High Noon and Mr. Smith Comes to Washington. Jefferson's writing style in Chinese is vivid and clear, making his books not only remarkable for their depth but also for their accessibility.

As a Bowdoin grad I was happy to hear of his fascination with Joshua Chamberlain. When he asked me for help in finding Joshua Chamberlain's writings and advice on his book, I suggested he write to Dr. Tom Desjardin, the Chief Historian of the State of Maine. Jefferson wrote me later that “Tom Deshardin is trustworthy and a good guy!”. Later, Jefferson hearing about Senator Angus King's interest in General Chamberlain, he wrote to Senator King and sent him a copy of the book. Jefferson was thrilled to get a warm letter back from Senator King and to get photographic evidence from Senator King that his book occupies a place of honor in Senator King's office next to the bust of General Chamberlain!

Sinoliterates can buy the books are on the website at America From Tolerance to Greatness The Young Lion of Gettysburg – the Memoirs of the Legendary American Civil War General Chamberlain

Senator King recently recorded a video about Joshua Chamberlain for a program on Gettysburg in Chengdu that Liu Xianwen is involved in. View the video at



Great example of soft power.

I was asked to judge the VFW essay contest on Okinawa when I was the detachment commander there in the early '70s. It was always a pleasure.

More recently, I sponsored a Filipino Army Captain here at the Defense Information School. When I asked him what sights he'd like to see while here, he immediately asked if I could take him the Gettysburg.

Though I had passed through Gettysburg many times over the years, I had never visited the battle sites. I assured him that we would arrange it. Then asked him why he was interested in that particular site. He explained that his great grandfather four time removed had fought there--an Irishman whom I recall was named McGinty.

McGinty met, fell in love and fathered a child with a Black women. He didn't marry her, but the son grew up and became a Buffalo Soldier, serving in the 10th Cavalry during the American Indian wars, then in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. He met, fell in love with a Filipino woman and had a son...but returned to the united States without marrying her. He reportedly traveled out west and settled on a horse ranch.

How does this connect?

The captain's grandmother taught him English, and how to recite the Gettysburg Address and the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S.

We arrived at Gettysburg on May 31, the day before the anniversary of the battle. Reenactors were everywhere...and the captain glowed as he posed for pictures with them and as he fondled their weapons. We visited the Cyclorama and toured the battlefield, then headed back to Ft. Meade. The captain was unusually quiet as we threated our way back over the country roads.

I asked him what he was thinking. "The land around her is very similar to my home in the Philippines," he replied. " If I lived in America, I would want to live here. And I would be a reenactor every Sunday...and I'd buy my own horse!"

It was more a history lesson for me than him...and a touching glimpse of how interconnected we are in this world.

Lincoln's words not only have impact for us here in the land of the free--but for those who would embrace freedom as well. Too bad that in the rush of daily life, we are losing the patience and the interest to plant the seeds of freedom with words rather than hoping that we can force other cultures to embrace democracy through military might.

Understanding what it means to be American

This essay introduces a great topic to share on at our first China Cabinet meeting in Seattle this week. Thanks for the inspiration! It is a great example of talking about an American identity issue in the context of China relations and history.

soft power

Don, thanks for sharing these excellent essays. They are great examples of American soft power and officers with the wit to build on it.

Your comments about the Gettysburg address remind me of another event that took place 24 years ago this month. On Nov. 15, 1989, a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland's Lech Walesa spoke to a joint session of our Congress. The opening words in his address were, "My, Narod," or, "we the people." Listening in Lisbon that day, i recognized the voice of the translator as that of Jacek Kalabinksi, who'd been a friend since the late 70s when I was Press Attache in Warsaw and Jacek was a dissident journalist. Later he was a Solidarity activist. Here's a link to that 1989 speech:

Best regards.


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